Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Lot has been said and written about mid-day meal programs running in schools in many countries including India. While there is a universal perception that these meals attract poor students to the school and improve attendance, the role such programs play in "food literacy" is not well known. The routine feeding programs are run based on preparation of the food in the school premises and serving them hot but infrastructure limitations, funding constraints, a bloated teaching syllabus and inadequate personnel invariably make the program ineffective and inefficient. Involvement of voluntary non-government organizations like ISKCON in school feeding program possibly may be a wise move but such an approach is devoid of any involvement by the staff and student community in this endeavor. It is now being realized that besides providing food, such programs if taken up within the school premises involving teachers and the students, can be a very effective tool in imparting many desirable traits in students like good eating habits, understanding cooking in a better way, logic of nutrition, better appreciation of health related information and rudimentary aspects of hygiene and sanitation. While such lofty aspirations can be understood as practical in rich countries with vast resources, can it be thought of in a developing country like India?

"Outside North America, school meals are viewed more as an investment than a cost. In France, students are fed a fresh, multi-course meal each day and taught table manners; school administrators even send suggestions for dinner recipes home as part of the effort to train young taste buds. In Sweden, children between the ages of 6 and 16 receive a hot meal each day under laws set by the National Food Administration. Pupils choose from three entrees, a vegetarian dish and a salad bar with at least five fresh choices; milk and bread are also served. In Brazil, where food is a constitutional right, a massive national program feeds 47 million students at 190,000 schools each day; it is championed not only for improving student nutrition, health and social development, but for providing wider employment, feeding the agricultural economy, local food system and regional economic development. In Italy, school meals are seen as a central part of education about national culture and health. Low-income families receive a 25 per cent discount on food; for the poorest, meals are free. More than half of the meals consist of organic food. In Japan, children aged 6 to 15 receive school meals. A government initiative aims to ensure 50 per cent of the meals are made with local ingredients".

There are many reports concerning the deficiency in the Indian school meal program, most crucial being limitation of funds provided to each beneficiary. Added to this is the gross organizational deficiency as the operations are based on bureaucratic meddling and improper supervision. Pilferage is very common while quality of ingredients procured locally is considered very low. With participation limited to poor and low income children because of lack of faith in the safety of these foods among many well to do families, it serves the limited purpose of attracting only those who are impoverished. Most government schools have practically no facilities considered essential to store, cook and serve foods. Dirty environment, lack of safe water supply, unclean utensils and plates and monotony of the fare served make the program unattractive and only those with very poor financial background consume the foods. Unless there is a major program to "reinvent" the school system by setting up dedicated facilities that can turn out good quality food with variety it may not be possible to make all children participate in the program. Those who run these programs with managerial responsibility must learn from the experience of countries like Japan, Canada and others to convert it from an expenditure based one to an investment mode with clear perception about its potential to bring in returns in the form of better and more enlightened students emerging out of the schools.


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